Getting Your Yes’s and No’s Straight

Getting Your Yes’s and No’s Straight


If I ever write another book along the lines of “living a life that’s your own”, getting your yes’s and no’s straight will be one of the fundamentals. Seems simple enough. Before any decision you make, before you respond to any request from another, or any opportunity that comes into your life, listen for the yes or the no. And, if it’s not a “Yes!”, nine times out of ten it’s a “no”. Seems simple, but it requires courage.

What you want to avoid at all costs is letting your “no” coming out as a “yes”. Trouble is hot on the heels of this one.

What’s at stake here is boundaries—which is the self-respect and sovereignty born of the awareness that your life is your own. When we are children, our life is not our own. We experiment with boundaries for sure, but ultimately our life is in somebody else’s hands, and hopefully those hands have our best interests in mind. Loving hands. But even in the best case scenario, we’re not equipped to make the best decisions—when it really matters. So it’s a good thing that our yes’s and no’s are outsourced—like, when a ten year old has a deep desire to jump off this 50′ cliff into unknown waters below. Thank god there’s somebody to say, nope, not a good idea.

The downside of this arrangement is that when it comes time to assume this responsibility, the outsourcing habit is so firmly entrenched that we find ourselves looking around for somebody else to tell us what to do. We’ve learned to locate authority for our lives in others—  spouses, friends, bosses, clergy, priests, rabbis, or even the waitress. “What’s good on the menu?”

This is ramped up when we’ve been raised in a milieu of lovelessness. We search for cues from the other as to what they want from us. What’s the safest, least conflictual, most pleasing thing we can do.

It’s surprisingly common in my practice for clients to confess, I have no idea what I want. I don’t know what a “yes” or a “no” feels like from within.

So, for many of us a re-tooling is required. We have the right, as adults, to lay claim to our desires or lack thereof. I want it. I don’t want it. Yes. No. It hurts you? Makes you sad? Angry? Let’s talk about it. But I won’t abandon myself so that you don’t have to feel whatever it is you are feeling.  I won’t perform my life to make it smooth for you. And please don’t do that for me.

As my mentor, Andrew Feldmar teaches, when we swallow our yes’s and no’s we’re going to have to spit it up eventually. This is what happens in ayahuasca ceremonies in rather dramatic style. All the rage, hatred, all our no’s that have been trampled on, all our yes’s that have been ignored or crushed, rise up from the very bowels of Earth, through our intestinal tract, through our throats, and ahem…there will be spit up. Actually, more like a volcanic eruption.

Or, it will all be spit up unconsciously in the form of passive aggressiveness, a habit of complaining (instead of acting), becoming secretly hyper-critical of other’s stupidity. Even worrying obsessively is a sign that we are not confident that we will be able to represent ourselves faithfully when the going gets tough. We become victims of life, instead of agents of the life force.

A small, but not trivial, personal example: The other morning I was working at the computer on something that was stressing me out. My wife came into the space and noted that it was late and our dog hadn’t been out yet for his morning constitutional. And she was doing something she couldn’t step away from herself. Would I do it? I didn’t want to do it. Instead of saying, “no”, I said something snotty and then took our dog out. By the time I got to the elevator I realized that I’d been a dick, and upon returning fessed up. This was my “spit up”. I set her up as the dominator and then, as life’s victim, all I could manage was a cheap shot.

The real problem was my lack of courage. My “no” morphed into a “yes”. The dark alchemy of a no that comes out as a yes is the shit it produces called resentment.

We’ve all seen those movies where a couple gets divorced and one or the other confesses that during the exchange of vows, they knew somewhere that their “yes” was actually a “no”.   Trouble, yes?

It needs to be said that the true “no” is not oppositional, not a regression to the terrible twos. It’s not pretty to witness an adult who didn’t successfully traverse this developmental stage. Much activism (no, not all) is an expression of this stage: just “no” to “the man”, whatever it is that “the man” seems to want. It’s difficult to distinguish between this “no” and a “no” that is a true expression of Self. Philosopher, Ken Wilber, called this confusion the pre-trans fallacy, that is, mistaking the moral stance of a two-year old (pre-conventional morality) with moral stance of someone who has “transcended” it (trans-conventional). The overt behaviour can look the same. Two people holding the same placards opposing the Vietnam War, for example, can be coming from vastly different places. One of them shows up for every single cause regardless of whether he knows the issues or not. It’s “no” for sport. It’s “fuck you” to every perceived authority. Same behaviour, different stage of development.

Here’s the tricky part. A gesture of self-abandonment (a “no” that morphs into the pleasing “yes”) often gets labelled as a virtue by mom and dad, friends, the church or the synagogue or Temple. And then, you wake up one day (if you’re lucky) and realize that you’ve given your life away. All because of a memory of a time when you were not in charge of your yes’s and your no’s, and you dare not risk (intelligently) articulating them.

But now you are in charge of your yes’s and no’s. It’s time to stop the performance of a script that was written by someone other than you. You’re not in the world to be nice, good, accommodating, self-sacrificing, etc. You’re here to be unrepeatable you. That requires that you (and I) get our yes’s and no’s straight.

Live Your Own Life Course

Bruce Sanguin Psychotherapist

Written by Bruce Sanguin

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